Twitter =/= Improved Teaching

I met a teacher recently who was quick to share his knowledge, resources he was aware of, and contacts he knew that could help my teaching process. That’s the kind of person I like to know (maybe because it’s the kind of person I like to be). Actually, I’ve been meeting a lot of teachers like this recently. This person stands out at the moment, though. We realized we have two things in common: We’re both starting to use standardsbased grading for the first school year, and we’re both first-time teachers of a certain engineering course. Once we realized that, we decided to meet up at his house to exchange ideas and resources for a bit. Score!

I saw this teacher (in-person) again at a conference yesterday. When I was tip-tapping on my laptop and googley-eyed during thw keynote, we started discussing the notion that Twitter can be supremely useful for teachers. After all it’s a forum for sharing knowledge, resources, and contacts (these three are gold for innovating teachers, right?). This friend told a story. He had asked an administrator, “What couple things would you recommend for me as I’m learning about SBG, etc?” The answer was: “I’ll tell you one thing – Twitter.”

You’re nodding your head. So did I.

Here’s the sad potentially illuminating part: This teacher doesn’t feel as though he has the time and energy to enter the twitter-blogosphere. He sees me on my laptop zipping from one tweet/thought/blog to the next and calls it impressive. (I think I’d call it frantic. tom-AY-to, tom-AH-to.) But this got me wondering: Is it really tweeting and blogging that allows teachers to be collaborate, innovate, and be mutually empowering? (We already know that it doesn’t cause collaboration; I know several teachers with mostly empty Twitter accounts.) This friend simply is collaborative and empowering, and will continue to be. He doesn’t need a certain popular manner of interaction to do the same.

Bottom line: I don’t want our enthusiasm for technology-driven -using efficiency and quantity to overshadow what is at the heart of this exciting explosion of ideas in education: commitment to generously sharing resources and lessons-learned in the interest of improving the service we offer to students and society.

In my conversations about what works in education (:-p), I intend to highlight this last point. Let’s celebrate the gift, not the wrapping.

Statement of Purpose

I’m working on becoming a better teacher. I also cannot stop ruminating about, and seeking answers regarding, big questions about what it means to be a productive human being and what education is all about.

Like many teachers I am actively learning more about implementing such pedagogical elements as whiteboarding, modelinginquirybased active learningstudent-generated questions, and standards-based grading.

Unless/until I have pressing breakthroughs or questions about these subjects, you won’t find much commentary on them in this blog. Instead, my focus will be on the approaches, attitudes, and methods that are conducive to advancing the culture of education systems.

Maybe that sounds broad. In my four years of teaching experience, I’ve been able to participate in educational discourse about pedagogy (which is awesome!). However, a too-small fraction of these conversations have been about building collective vision of long-term transformation.

Yes, all teachers I talk with want their students to be life long learners. And it is certainly arguable that the pedagogical elements linked above help meet this goal. I simply want to keep discourse about education’s overarching goals, and about how well they are being met, at the forefront.

Big or Small?

I used to spend a lot of my focus on the minutia of my teaching-related tasks. This was during my years as a college physics instructor, a student teacher in a middle school science classroom, a full-time high school physics teacher, and a long-term middle school science substitute teacher. How can I perfect the layout of this assignment that isn’t even fully written? Can I find/make the perfect video for this concept? What are bloggers saying about this specific  piece of electrostatics pedagogy? Unsurprisingly, this route took me through plenty of late nights and early mornings to complete grading and lesson plans.

Increasingly, now, it very easy for me to get halted by big questions. What are the implications for my students’ lives of this single statement I’m about to make? How can I frame this lesson to encourage my students to be champions of the cause of justice and hell-bent seekers of truth?

At the heart of both of these extremes, though, are my self-doubting heart nagging: Am I doing this right? Am I good enough? From one perspective the answer is definitely “no.” No matter what the ideal we choose, we, by definition, never reach it. I know, intellectually, that a better approach is to acknowledge and appreciate that I am learning, accept that it is difficult, and instead let my heart ask: Where can we go from here?

The “we” there isn’t about any sort of multiple personality disorder. The word is coming from a place of desiring and needing to consult with others with similar goals, and who also strive to see themselves as protagonists of the work of educating humanity.

Fine, Leif. We get it. You haven’t had the opportunity to collaborate as meaningfully as you like with peer educators. Are you going to talk about teaching or not? That’s your ticket into the blogging teachers community. Ha! Maybe I actually do have to admit some MPD. Just kidding, that’s the collective voice I’m imaging from the chorus.

It doesn’t seem that I am directly responding to any of the questions I initially posed here. That’s fine. If we’re cognizant of our role as humans living during humanity’s turning point, we’ll always have more questions than answers, right? I’ll let that be an affirmation.

Five Categories

The questions I have about education & teaching relate to 5 overarching questions:

  1. How can the evolution of education-oriented systems and institutions be wisely promoted?
  2. Every child and youth has the inner aspirations to pursue justice, seek truth, and work towards righteousness. How can educators get better at supporting this aspirations?
  3. What pedagogies are appropriate for various learning objectives?
  4. How can teachers keep their jobs while working towards these questions?
  5. What principles best guide educators as they seek answers to these questions?

A Strong Desire

To participate in study, consultation, action and reflection with peer teachers.

For brevity, I’ll refer to these four mutually reinforcing elements of collective learning as just “learning.” This was immensely helpful as I prepared to teach. I feel the lack of it now that I am spending more time teaching than learning with other teachers. I learned much more regularly with other teachers while I was still in school, preparing to be a physics teacher. I learned a bit less frequently while I was in my first year as a full-time teacher – where a friend and former classmate and I were able to learn together. But during that year, I felt like I needed the shared learning more than she did – which made it a bit difficult even though I was forced to grow more on my own.

Yes, it is supremely important for an individual to develop his or her capability to learn by himself or herself and to refine his or her character and skills. But is it not more beneficial – to individuals and to society – when there is a reliable community of learners to participate grow with and find and offer logistical and emotional encouragement and support? During the times when I’ve been actively teaching, though, I’ve felt more of a push towards isolated, individual learning – with collective learning being an after thought. I wonder: is that push internal? External? System? Imagined?

Getting back to my history, I am now learning with my wife – who is a student in a university program designed to prepare elementary school teachers for their work.

The learning processes I describe – including study, consultation, action, and reflection – simply CANNOT be done by an individual. Perhaps someone could suggest that thought can replace consultation, but such would be redundant with reflection. Among the myriad benefits of consultation is that it allows multiple individuals to discover the most beneficial ideas that exist among them, and allows them to move forward in unison toward a shared aim. (Yes, a common challenge is reaching shared goals, but in the interest of time I will reserve that for later.) Action, when based on a shared vision and agreed-upon approaches, can lead to camaraderie and confidence to try new things. Reflection with others is better than reflection by oneself because negative emotions can color challenges as barriers, while others can help you challenges as opportunities. At risk of making this paragraph too long, when we suggest to each other things to study we begin to pull back the curtains put up by our own biases.

Not only do I have a strong desire to learn collaboratively with other teachers, but I also desire to help new teachers to do the same.

Questions to consider later

  • Is “mature” a better word than “modify” when referring to changes in behavior, thought, mind, heart, and spiritual condition?
  • How can people working together in the same discipline (or organization or community) come to share goals when they have diverse experiences and personal priorities? Does this relate to forgetting one’s own preferences? If so, how can such a notion be advanced in a culture where people are systemically encouraged to seek their own preference and gratification with little to no regard for their implications?
  • What does “accompaniment” mean and how can it be manifested in educational institutions?

Prerequisites of Professional Learning Communities

Professional learning communities are forums for reflecting on the results of certain strategies and planning new ones. I will not dwell on why these are essential to any effort of elevating the teaching culture and teacher discourse in a school. I will also skip the reasons for elevating culture discourse. Instead, how can we build and maintain professional learning communities?

Professional learning communities are made up of professional learning relationships. Professional learning relationships only exist between teachers who share a vision of professional learning. Since the only person I can control is me, how will I develop a shared vision with the teachers I work with?

  • I will seize opportunities to build sincere friendships with fellow teachers. (How could there possibly be collaboration without joyful decision making in a framework characterized by trust?)
  • I will journal my strategies and the results with regularity. This reflection give me something to base future decisions on. Periodically, I will articulate the specific strengths of my planning, teaching, and assessment process that address my challenges effectively. Also, I will list the approaches that are not conducive to effectively meeting goals.
  • I will keep apprised of the my fellow teachers’ friends’ progress towards their chosen goals.
  • When I see that a fellow teacher friend is facing similar difficulties that I have, I will choose/create a setting where the person will be receptive to my suggestion. I will ask if and how their students might benefit if (s)he used a strategy like I have found to be effective.
  • When I see that a friend is unhindered by a challenge I am struggling with, I will choose/create a setting where I can share my difficulty and ask what has helped them.

Perhaps this list could be refined to include the actions taken within professional learning communities. As we get used to this pattern, we can accompany other teachers in the same. Once a vision for changing teaching culture is shared, it may be fitting to formalize professional learning teams according what is natural considering teachers’ sociability, strengths and challenges.